Editor's note: This article was first published on Oct. 14, 2013. For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.
Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 51: How did the story of Solomon Northup, the real-life protagonist of the film 12 Years a Slave, first become public?
As a literary scholar and cultural historian who has spent a lifetime searching out African Americans' lost, forgotten and otherwise unheralded tales, I was honored to serve as a historical consultant on Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, most certainly one of the most vivid and authentic portrayals of slavery ever captured in a feature film. In its blend of tactile, sensory realism with superb modernistic cinematic techniques, this film is 180 degrees away from Quentin Tarantino's postmodern spaghetti Western-slave narrative, Django Unchained, occupying the opposite pole on what we might think of as "the scale of representation."
No story tells itself on its own; even "true" stories have to be recreated within the confines and various formal possibilities for expression offered by a given medium, and that includes both feature films and documentaries, as well. Both of these films offer compelling interpretations of the horrific experience of human bondage, even if their modes of storytelling are diametrically opposed, offering viewers—and especially teachers and students—a rare opportunity to consider how the ways that an artist chooses to tell a story—the forms, points of view and aesthetic stances she or he selects—affects our understanding of its subject matter.
One hundred and sixty years before Steve McQueen made any artistic choices, Solomon Northup, the narrator and protagonist of 12 Years a Slave, was eager just to get his story out to the public—and have them believe that what had happened to him was authentic. Think of what it must have been like for Solomon during those first disorienting hours in the pitch black, when, in "the dungeon" of Williams' Slave Pen off Seventh Avenue in Washington, D.C., he had to reckon with the betrayal that had lured him out of a lifetime of freedom into a nightmare of bondage. "I found myself alone, in utter darkness, and in chains," Northup wrote, and "nothing broke the oppressive silence, save the clinking of my chains, whenever I chanced to move. I spoke aloud, but the sound of my own voice startled me."
Not only was Northup suddenly a stranger to himself, in an even stranger place, but with his money and the papers proving his status as a free black man stolen and a beating awaiting every insistence on the truth, Northup was forced into a horrifying new role, that of the paradoxical "free slave," under the false name "Platt Hamilton," a supposed "runaway" from Georgia. That all this happened in the shadows of the U.S. Capitol—that in cuffs Northup was shuffled down the same Pennsylvania Avenue where just over a century later Dr. King would be heard delivering his "Dream" speech, a few decades before President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle would parade in hopes of fulfilling it—must have made Northup's imposed odyssey taste all the more bitter. "My sufferings," he recalled of the first whipping he received, "I can compare to nothing else than the burning agonies of hell!"
But unlike Dante's Inferno, the outpost to which Solomon Northup was forced to descend was no metaphorical space replete with various circles housing the damned, but the swamps, forests and cotton fields in the Deep South. "I never knew a slave to escape with his life from Bayou Boeuf," Northup wrote. After that, the driving force of his life—and story—could be summed up in one question: Would he be the exception?
Here are the facts.
Who Was Solomon Northup?
Spoiler alert: This section of the column—and only this section—contains some information also covered in the film.
Solomon Northup spent his first 33 years as a free man in upstate New York. He was born in the Adirondack town of Schroon (later Minerva) July 10, 1807 (his memoir says 1808, but the evidence suggests otherwise). As a child, he learned to read and write while assisting his father Mintus, a former slave who eventually bought enough farm land in Fort Edward to qualify for the vote (a right that in many states, during the early days of the Republic, was reserved for landowners). Solomon's mother, Susannah, was a "quadroon," who may have been born free herself. Solomon's "ruling passion," he said, was "playing on the violin."
Married at 21, Northup and his wife Anne Hampton (the daughter of a free black man who was also part white and Native American) had three children: Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo. In 1834, they settled in Saratoga Springs, where Solomon toiled at various seasonal jobs, including rafting, woodcutting, railroad construction, canal maintenance and repairs, farming and, in resort season, staffing area hotels (for a time, he and his wife both lived and worked at the United States Hotel). His "ruling passion," the violin, also became a way of earning money, and his reputation grew.
In March 1841, Northup was lured from his home by two white men, using the aliases Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton, who claimed to be members of a Washington, D.C.-based circus in need of musicians for their sightseeing tour. While in New York City, Brown and Hamilton convinced Northup to journey further South with them, and arriving in Washington, D.C., on April 6, 1841, the trio lodged at Gadsby's Hotel. The next day, the two men got Northup so drunk (he implied they drugged him) that, in the middle of the night, he was roused from his room by several men urging him to follow them to a doctor. Instead, when Northup came to, he found himself "in chains," he said, at Williams' Slave Pen with his money and free papers nowhere to be found. Attempting to plead his case to the notorious slave trader James H. Birch (also spelled "Burch"), Northup was beaten and told he was really a runaway slave from Georgia. Birch paid more than $600 for his “slave” (recollections varied: Birch later said $625. Others recalled it was $650).
Shipped by Birch on the Orleans under the name "Plat Hamilton" (also spelled "Platt"), Northup arrived in New Orleans on May 24, 1841, and after a bout of smallpox, was sold by Birch's associate, Theophilus Freeman, for $900. Northup was to spend his 12 years in slavery (actually it was 11 years, 8 months and 26 days) in Louisiana's Bayou Boeuf region. He had three principal owners: the paternal planter William Prince Ford (1841-1842), the belligerent carpenter John Tibaut (also spelled "Tibeats") (1842-1843) and the former overseer-turned-small cotton planter Edwin Epps (1843-1853).
Ford gave Northup the widest latitude, working at his mills. Twice Northup and Tibaut came to blows over work, the second time Northup coming so close to choking Tibaut to death (Tibaut had come at him with an ax) that Northup fled into the Great Cocodrie Swamp. Though prone to drink, Edwin Epps was brutally efficient with the lash whenever Northup was late getting to the fields, inexact in his work (Northup had many skills; picking cotton wasn't one of them), unwilling to whip the other slaves as Epps' driver or too high on his own talents as a fiddler after Epps purchased him a violin to placate his wife, Mary Epps.
In 1852, Epps hired a Canadian carpenter named Samuel Bass to work on his house. An opponent of slavery, Bass agreed to help Northup by mailing three letters on his behalf to various contacts in New York. Upon receiving theirs, the Saratoga shopkeepers William Perry and Cephas Parker notified Solomon's wife and attorney Henry Bliss Northup, a relative of Solomon's father's former master. With bipartisan support, including a petition and six affidavits, Henry Northup successfully petitioned New York Gov. Washington Hunt to appoint him an agent of rescue. On Jan. 3, 1853, Henry Northup arrived at Epps' plantation with the sheriff of Avoyelles Parish, La. There was no need for questioning. A local attorney, John Pamplin Waddill, had connected Henry Northup to Bass, and Bass had led him to the slave "Platt." The proof was in their embrace.
Traveling home, Henry and Solomon Northup stopped in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 17, 1853, to have the slave trader James Birch arrested on kidnapping charges, but because Solomon had no right to testify against a white man, Birch went free. Solomon Northup was reunited with his family in Glens Falls, N.Y., on Jan. 21, 1853.
Over the next three months, he and his white editor, David Wilson, an attorney from Whitehall, N.Y., wrote Northup's memoir, 12 Years a Slave. It was published July 15, 1853, and sold 17,000 copies in the first four months (almost 30,000 by January 1855). "While abolitionist journals had previously warned of slavery's dangers to free African-American citizens and published brief accounts of kidnappings, Northup's narrative was the first to document such a case in book-length detail," Brad S. Born writes in The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature. With its emphasis on authenticity, 12 Years a Slave gave contemporary readers an up-close account of slavery in the South, including the violent tactics owners and overseers used to force slaves to work, and the sexual advances and jealous cruelties slave women faced from their masters and masters' wives.
Since then, it has been "authentic[ated]" by "[a] number of scholars [who] have investigated judicial proceedings, manuscript census returns, diaries and letters of whites, local records, newspapers and city directories," wrote the ultimate authority on the authenticity of the slave narratives, the late Yale historian John W. Blassingame, in his definitive 1975 essay, "Using the Testimony of Ex-Slaves: Approaches and Problems," in the Journal of Southern History.
In 1854, Northup's book led to the arrest of his original kidnappers, Brown and Hamilton. Their real names, respectively, were Alexander Merrill and James Russell, both New Yorkers. Though Solomon was able to testify at their trial in Saratoga County, the case dragged on for three years and was eventually dropped by the prosecution in 1857, the same year the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford, which, in part, denied black people were citizens of the United States (and thus they could not sue in federal court).
A free man returned from slavery, Solomon Northup remained active in the abolitionist movement; lectured throughout the Northeast; staged, and performed in, two plays based on his story (the second, in 1855, was titled "A Free Slave"); and was known to aid fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad. To this day, the date, location and circumstances of his death remain a mystery. Northup's last public appearance was in August 1857 in Streetsville, Ontario, Canada. The last recollected contact with him was a visit to the Rev. John L. Smith, a Methodist minister and fellow Underground Railroad conductor, in Vermont sometime after the Emancipation Proclamation, likely in 1863.
An 'American' Story
Since D.W. Griffith premiered his scandalous whitewashing—really, one of the grossest historical distortions—of the history of slavery and Reconstruction in his 1915 silent film, The Birth of a Nation, there have been all too few films that have captured, or even attempted to convey, the truth about American slavery in all of its complexity. Of those that have taken slavery as their subject matter, few are worthy of recognition. Yet, the well-crafted personal testimonies of African Americans who spent time as slaves are both gripping narratives (many, like Solomon Northup's and Frederick Douglass', were instant best-sellers), and are subject matter central to the fullest understanding of American history, told from the points of view of victims of one of our country's most heinous institutions.
And those stories documenting "America's original sin" cannot be told and retold enough. Steve McQueen, a black Briton, is to be praised for turning to one of our canonical slave narratives (101 were published between 1760 and the end of the Civil War) and bringing it so vividly, sensitively and brilliantly to the screen.
What makes 12 Years a Slave, the film, especially worthy of attention is what audiences in Northup's own time appreciated about his tale: its sober presentation of American slavery as it really was, interwoven with the universal themes of identity, betrayal, brutality and the need to keep faith to survive confrontations with evil. Most of all, Northup reminds us of the fragile nature of freedom in any human society and the harsh reality that whatever legal boundaries existed between so-called free states and slaves states in 1841, no black man, woman or child was permanently safe.
Twelve Years a Slave has a trajectory unlike the other antebellum slave narratives, which usually chart a protagonist's path from slavery to freedom. Its drive is in reverse, from freedom to slavery, in both a single human life and as a larger allegory for slavery itself. In this way, it defies the more common (and reassuring) American story of upward mobility, of attaining ever greater badges of liberation with "luck and pluck," from "rags to riches." Instead, Northup's trajectory is down—down from New York to Louisiana—and thus an inversion of most of America's popular literature, which, to my amazement, makes it all the more uncanny that the name of the place where Northup was kidnapped was Gadsby's Hotel (I know: When I read it, I thought Gatsby, too). In his prefiguring of the counter-narrative, the isolation in darkness that Ralph Ellison later made famous in his unparalleled novel, Invisible Man (1952), 12 Years a Slave gives us the soul of African-American literature and culture, the "sound of life" in "oppressive silence."
'A Man—Every Inch of Him'
In many classic tales, the protagonist functions as our guide, the reader's eyes, ears, nose, hands and tongue, the one through whom we think and feel. In Solomon Northup, unlike even the greatest African-American writer and speaker of his day, ex-slave Frederick Douglass, the audience has a guide who is as surprised, shocked and horrified by slavery as we might have been, because we begin from the same place: freedom. At times, Northup's story seems almost biblical, structured as it is as a descent and resurrection narrative of a protagonist who, like Christ, was 33 at the time of his abduction. But unlike a God humbling Himself in the form of man, however, Northup was a man forced into the life of a slave, a slave chained in the hell of slavery for more than a decade.
What ensues in his book—and in Steve McQueen's film—is frightening, gripping and inspiring, because as a reviewer of Northup's own theatrical staging of his narrative in Syracuse, N.Y., put it in the Syracuse Daily Journal on Jan. 31, 1854, "He is a man—every inch of him." Yet because of the color of Northup's skin, every inch of his manhood was vulnerable to being falsified, stolen, emasculated and denied, and there was virtually nothing he could do about it. In fact, Northup quickly learned that protesting his enslavement represented an even greater threat to his survival, because, to his traders and his owners, he was worth quite a lot of money as a slave, money that would simply disappear if he could confirm his status as free man.
North and South, Free State and Slave
At the same time, it is important not to overdraw the boundaries between North and South, free state and slave, before the Civil War. As Ira Berlin writes in his book Slaves Without Masters (1974), at no time before the end of the Civil War did the number of free black people in the North outnumber those living in the South, a fact that most of us find astonishing and quite counterintuitive today. And while there were important differences between the freedoms Solomon Northup could exercise as a free man in New York versus his free counterparts, say, in South Carolina or Louisiana, there was persistent, widespread antiblack discrimination in the North. In many states, restrictions on voting and segregation regimes anticipated the de jure "Jim Crow" segregation era that commenced in the 1890s, which rendered true freedom a myth for African Americans until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.
Also surprising, Ira Berlin reminded me in an email exchange, "free blacks in the South," while denied "political and civil rights," were "much more prosperous" (they "openly practiced skilled trades" and were "often propertied") than their Northern counterparts, who, despite their "great civic and political tradition," were more often "impoverished."
Nevertheless, the further that North and South pulled apart in the antebellum years, the more tempting it became for slave catchers to venture North, across the Mason-Dixon Line, to steal free black people under the pretense of retrieving "fugitive slaves" (the latter practice authorized by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850). The bottom line for most of these thieves was the proverbial bottom line: Trading in slaves was an extremely lucrative business, especially after importing them from abroad was banned by Congress (under the Constitution) in 1807, the year of Solomon Northup's birth.
Most of this kidnapping activity understandably occurred along the Mason-Dixon Line, not where Northup resided in Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York. But the further South he traveled further with Brown and Merrill, the riskier the adventure became—risks about which Northup himself had been warned before his kidnapping, he later admitted. Given the concealed nature of this type of crime, there are no official estimates of the number of free blacks kidnapped into slavery in the United States (abolitionists put it in the thousands a year, while Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, to whom Northup dedicated his book, put it in the "hundreds … all the time"), but it was not uncommon, and it continued through the Civil War, Paul Finkelman and Richard Newman write in the Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass.
Signification—and Its Significance
What makes Steve McQueen's and screenwriter John Ridley's retelling of Northup's 12 Years so powerful is that it comes closer than any other representation to the true intent of Northup's original book and the lecture tours he went on throughout New York and New England in the short years that followed. In reading Northup today, one immediately senses how determined he was to prove the veracity of his tale (to this end, he even included details on how sugar mills worked). Had this approach fit the theatrical conventions of the day, Northup might have retired a rich man. Because it did not, the attempts he made in translating his tale to the stage were, well, less than stellar, even with Northup in the starring role.
In this way, Chiwetel Ejiofor, playing Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen's film, can do—and does—a better job. Instead of melodrama, we, the audience, are left with the haunting images of the eternity of suffering implicit in perpetual, hereditary bondage, which McQueen's cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt, unflinchingly captures. Then there are the astonishingly vivid and realistic, up-close performances of the film's central characters: Michael Fassbender's remarkably complex portrayal of the conflicted, sadistic slave master Edwin Epps; Lupita Nyong'o's recreation of the slave Patsey, the innocent, yet multidimensional object of Epps' conflicted desire, guilt, self-hatred and sadism; Paul Dano's John Tibeats, the jealous and insecure carpenter who is quick to blows to maintain his status; Brad Pitt's heroic Canadian, Samuel Bass, who intervenes at last to contact Solomon's friends back home in the North, and who subsequently aids in the rescue; and the great Chiwetel Ejio, a revelation on screen whose personification of Solomon already has many critics predicting an Academy Award nomination.
Some will ask, Is everything in the film version of 12 Years a Slave accurate? My response is yes and no, for the truth is Solomon Northup himself changed some of the facts, including his birth and marriage dates, the spellings of certain names and, in an early play version, he even made the character of Samuel Bass more of a "Yankee" than a Canadian. This points to a deeper truth about African-American culture, and one I have written about throughout my career: that signifying or black signification, by its very nature, is an act of repetition and revision, of invocation and improvisation, and so to me, the far more relevant question to ask of any representation of 12 Years a Slave is not whether it is strictly factual but whether it is true.
To this I say yes, without question, and, in viewing it, we each must test our own commitment to freedom, just as Northup's audiences were tested (though with much higher stakes). As the film rolls on, we are the ones willing him first to survival and then to freedom. We are the ones fearing for his life. We are the ones confined as he was confined. In our hopes, we are the ones emulating the petitioners and affidavit-signers who testified to his status as a free man, including his wife, Anne. And in following his story to the end, we are the ones sitting in the shadows determined to reclaim what has been lost, to the extent that this is possible, having been robbed of 12 years of one's life.
Did anyone challenge the authenticity of Northup's book when it was published? Quite the contrary. In fact, the most "representative" black man of the 19th century, Frederick Douglass, wrote that "We think it will be difficult for any one who takes up the book in a candid and impartial spirit to lay it down until finished … " (Frederick Douglass' Paper, July 29, 1863). Of Northup's story onstage, Frederick Douglass' Paper also had this to say nine years earlier: "His story is full of romantic interest and painful adventures, and gives as clear an insight to the practical workings and beauties of American Slavery … It is a sure treat to hear him give some hazardous adventure, with so much sans [sic] froid that the audience is completely enraptured and the 'house brought down'."
I'll tell you one thing: When the house lights went back up in the theater where I saw 12 Years a Slave for the first time, I, too, like Frederick Douglass, felt "completely enraptured," and full of admiration for the spectacularly moving result of the collaboration between the film's director, Steve McQueen, a black man from Great Britain, and his screenwriter, John Ridley, an African American.
The last amazing fact I'll share without giving the entire film away: You could sit in a dark theater and watch Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, with its 133 minute-running time, close to 50,000 times in the amount of time Solomon Northup actually spent as a slave. The difference between your time in the dark and his: You are free to leave.
For those interested in learning more, I encourage you to begin by reading Solomon Northup in his own words, in the book 12 Years a Slave (1853), available in bookstores and online in a 2012 edition edited by Ira Berlin, in a series of African-American classics that I edit for Penguin Books.
The best current biography (and the indispensible source to me in writing this column) is Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of 12 Years a Slave, by David A. Fiske, Clifford W. Brown Jr. and Rachel Seligman. I personally want to thank the authors for sharing a copy of their manuscript with me in advance and for working so hard to set as much of the record straight as can be set straight. The facts, figures, quotes, names and dates you've uncovered are invaluable—the living descendants you've connected to their family's history, precious.
As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.